Chasing Our Long Tails

The Chron (subscription required, dang it!) reports briefly on research published in Science that, in spite of access to full text archives online, researchers are citing less, and including a smaller range of sources because they follow links from one paper to another. Of course, they’ve always done this – but perhaps are now more likely to cite those that are available in online archives and ignore those that are not. The reporter, Lila Guterman, had the good sense to check in with Carol Tenopir, who has been studying research behavior for years and finds these results quite the opposite of what her studies have shown.

My personal interest isn’t so much in scholar’s behavior as in that of undergraduates, because that’s the population I teach. And my own very limited research (conducting a handful of in-depth interviews in the early 1990s, repeating the study in the early 2000s) suggested that the problems students have doing research have nothing to do with changes in technology and everything to do with gaining enough knowledge to frame a good question within a matter of weeks, reading and writing in an unfamiliar form of discourse, and embracing their role as knowledge producers, not information reporters. Post-Internet students’ responses to my questions were totally consistent my findings in 1992, even though the pool of potential resources at our small library had turned into an ocean. Finding a focus, selecting and understanding sources, and developing their own voice remained their biggest challenge. Using the library and/or Internet to access materials was a doddle in comparison.

a Wordl picture of our article introduction

(This picture, by the by, was generated with Wordl.)

I’ve been mulling the enormous amount of information available to the average undergraduate since reading a piece of research in the Harvard Business Review. (Hold on – this is Steven B. territory, no? What’s an anarchist like me doing in a journal like that? Siva pointed it out.) Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse challenges Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – that the digital world will not only enable discovery of niche products, but will change what we choose. Elberse says it’s the opposite – the digital environment actually amplifies the dominance of blockbusters. She also says that crowds, in their wisdom, gravitate toward blockbusters because they find them more satisfying than less-well-known items, and manufacturers and retailers should therefore put their money on known winners, not on promoting a longer tail. Naturally, there has been much debate about her methodology and conclusions, but it’s all very thought-provoking.

Naturally, my thoughts turn to undergraduates struggling to find what they need in an information-rich environment. Perhaps their experience with Wikipedia has been that it’s easy and it works better than more obscure alternatives. They have less trouble finding and deciphering the meaning of Wikipedia articles than they do making choices among thousands of scholarly articles and then having to figure out what an article means when it’s written for experts, which they are not. The blockbuster works. Except they don’t learn how to do the hard stuff or interpretation and building new meaning, which is why we torture them in the first place.

But what scaffolding helps them succeed at the hard stuff? And how, amidst the enormously long tail of information that students could use, do they find good sources – the kinds that can be used to build an original and compelling understanding of whatever it is they’re researching? We pay a lot of attention to exposing students to the abundance; not so much with the much harder job of making good choices. Wherever you fall on the Elberse / Anderson debate, we’re making a false assumption when we say more is always better.

Amy Fry, Julie Gilbert and I just published an article in portal (a self-archived copy is here) that had some surprising findings about the long tail in aggregated interdisciplinary databases: looking at use of one of the market leaders at 14 largely undergraduate institutions, 4% of titles accounted for half of downloads, and these were largely popular titles; articles in 40% of full text journals were not downloaded even once at all 14 institutions. We also found that, in aggregate, the number of articles downloaded fell from 2005 to 2006 by 10%, even though the database itself was growing. Curiously, a survey of librarians show they think these growing databases are about the right size and that more full text would be an improvement. Is more always a better investment? Really?

In the case of undergraduates – it’s complicated. They don’t think more is a problem with Google results. But that’s because they don’t have to sort through them; they look at the first page or two. Google’s ranking algorithms are far more sophisticated than those used in our databases. If they find what they’re looking for in the first two pages of a Google search, but do not in a library database, they get frustrated. (I know, they may be wrong – and they shouldn’t be lazy, etc. etc., but it works for them. And the databases don’t.)

Given undergraduates’ understandable difficulty in making sophisticated choices about sources in fields that they know little about, faculty sometimes try two unhelpful approaches. One is banning all Internet sources. Another is giving up on self-exploration altogether and relying entirely on assigned reading; that way the sophisticate – the teacher – eliminates the problem of making unsophisticated choices altogether.

This, of course, means students don’t get practice doing something they will need to do in future. They may have to find out whether that claim a presidential candidate is making about immigration has merit or not, even if they don’t have a degree in immigration studies. They may have to decide whether the treatment their doctor is recommending for their cancer warrants a second opinion. They may want to make a good case before their city council that the coal-fired power plant down the block is a health risk or that the effectiveness of the reading program being used in their fourth-grader’s class is not only confusing the heck out of their child, but isn’t supported by research. They may want to be able to think for themselves. At least, we hope they will. And for that, they need to be able to make sophisticated choices about things they don’t already know.

Relying on blockbusters – Wikipedia or Google or USA Today or the book / movie / person everyone is talking about – won’t cut it. But neither will simply assuming they’ll find it in the long tail. We need to think hard about not just increasing our resources and our training on how to use them, but helping faculty help students develop the ability to get to the good stuff. And not just to complete that paper, but to complete themselves as free and thoughtful human beings.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

7 thoughts on “Chasing Our Long Tails”

  1. Barbara – I’m pleased to learn you finally added HBR to your regular reading – Ok – maybe that’s an exaggeration. But even in the latest issue (with the long tail article) how did you ever overlook the great articles on leadership.

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